Episode 83: I Did It My Way

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time, the second of two shows on generational conflict at work.

“It’s been a really uncomfortable decade for me and my friends I think. But it’s cultivated a certain amount of unwillingness to be the good girl.”

She thinks the older women in her industry are under-appreciated in spite of everything they do.

And we hear from a 40-something on what influenced her career choices…

“You know, my parents were divorced. And I remember looking at the mothers and the women around me and thinking they are beholden to somebody else for their safety and lifestyle.”

Coming up.

So I know I said we’d be concentrating more on Gen X women in this show and we will get to them, but I want to start off with Nora Mathews. She’s the 30 year-old from the last show. She knows her generation has this reputation of being over-entitled, special snowflakes. She works in media and publishing in New York. And she graduated into a recession. She didn’t get right on her chosen career path after college…it took some years of doing jobs she was overqualified for. She hasn’t had the experience in her chosen field she thought she’d have by this age. The older women she works with have had a more straightforward path; they’re excelling. But that said…

AM-T: “Do you ever feel envious of the women in the generation above you?”

“No. I feel like especially Gen X women are in a tight spot between boomers and millennials and they if anything have a lot of pressure on them to perform…”

And she says at her office they do – brilliantly. But she’s not sure they get the recognition they deserve.  

“I think while there are definite benefits to having started up the career ladder in time to be doing financially better than me and my friends are, I still see a certain amount of pressure and almost that ‘good girl’ expectation that can be crushing, where, my direct boss for instance is killing it, she’s single handedly doubled, tripled our revenue in the last 7, 8 years she’s been there. And I do think she’s somewhat overlooked because she’s a traditionally good, type A, striving, achieving woman who isn’t necessarily going to push forward and demand what she wants from her job. If anything it’s the opposite of the special snowflake -----thing – it’s that I see a lot of women of that generation performing at a very high level and having it be what’s expected of them.”

AM-T: “And as we know, that doesn’t always work out so well…”

“Exactly. And my friends and I are almost forced to opt out a little bit, we have to have our side hustle just to pay our rent here in New York. We all have at least two or three jobs. We can’t survive and be quite as polite and quite as good, because wages have stagnated and we have to negotiate for that raise or we can’t pay our rent. So it’s uncomfortable, and it’s been a really uncomfortable decade for me and my friends, I think. But it has cultivated a certain amount of unwillingness to be the good girl that I see a lot of the older women I really respect still struggling with.”

AM-T: “That’s really interesting. So tell us about your side hustle or hustles.”

“I have 4 jobs right now. I have my corporate 9 to 5. I’ve worked with an educational non- profit for several years teaching after school programs and I also teach with their corporate programs…”

On top of that she’s a qualified massage therapist – still does that for friends and family on the weekends…and then she does consulting…

“…for a female-owned and female-operated startup that helps independently published mid-list authors implement marketing strategies and provides virtual assistance for them.”

Now this is something I really admire about younger women. I launched The Broad Experience while I was studying on an entrepreneurial journalism program at CUNY in New York. And nearly everyone else on that program was in their mid to late twenties. It was pretty intimidating, I have to say. But what really struck me was how much these people did – how many different types of work they had going on at the same time on top of school and how they seemed perfectly able to cope with that.

“The whole growth of the multi job economy is happening and so frankly for both boomers and Gen Xers – like, we don’t really know that world so how can we advise on it, because we didn’t grow up in a world we you had 12 things going on at once, and how do you balance all that?”

Joanna Bloor is another Gen Xer – she lives in San Francisco, she has a background in media and tech, and she’s CEO of The Amplify Lab. It helps C-suite level women build a strategy around what they want to be known for.

She says yes, she definitely counts as a ‘good girl.’  Although she now counsels other women NOT to assume they’ll get where they want JUST by doing their job well.

Joanna used to work for Pandora, the music streaming company. And things were exploding when she was there. She had lots of 20-somethings working for her; she says they were keen and talented – and ambitious.

“So here I am with an amazing team of people but leading this organization and having to scale an organization that was doubling, tripling its revenue, the speed everything was happening at was crazy. And I just kept on going, please just come to me with ideas and solutions all day every day. And I was immensely frustrated because these people would look at me and go well, what is it that you want me to do? And I’d be like, ‘argh, just go figure it out, come up with solutions.”

So she started to think – a lot – about why the 20-somethings seemed different from her and her peers. Here’s where we go broad for a minute, and yes, there will be generalizations. But here goes. Joanna says this is how she and her friends grew up: they saw their mothers return to work in the ‘80s after years of not working, and a lot of them became latchkey kids. Back at home after school, alone, and left to their own devices. There was no structure, basically – as long as you were home by dinner, it was fine.

She says contrast that with her 20-something team and how they grew up. Parents were much more involved in their activities. They had afternoons filled with after-school programs. In short they had a lot going on. Their time was more structured, and they had more guidance.

“They have been taught, follow the rules, or here are the rules for this is what you need to get an A. So they’re like, what are the rules, what are the guidelines. Whereas my generation are basically happiest generally when there’s a blank sheet of paper, and they’re like, well give me the high level, don’t give me the guardrails. Let me just innovate from nothing. Because that’s the muscle that we’ve gotten really strong with. And you put those two together, with one group of people who are like, tell me what to do to get an A, and the other group is saying ‘it’s not the A that matters,’ and then you start having that conflict.”

She says you just need to be aware of where the two groups are coming from to pull a project off successfully. And she says they did that all the time.  

Joanna believes divorce also plays a part in her generation’s perspective. Divorce shot up in the 70s and 80s when she was growing up. And back then women often found themselves suddenly on their own, with rusty professional skills. They were at a disadvantage in the job market. Many of these women took a big financial hit.

Joanna says for her and all her friends whose parents split up…that era made them who they are as workers and parents.

“Because of my work, I work with a lot of executive women, and across the board every one of them had this moment in their early to mid-teens where they were like, wait a second, I really have to rely on myself, an almost an off the chart experience of, I am responsible for putting a roof over my head. The whole Cinderella/Prince Charming fantasy just evaporated.”

Joanna grew up in England until she was 14. At that point her mother re-married and they all moved to Texas. But when she thinks back to that time in England after her parents divorced…

“I remember looking at the mothers and the women around me and thinking they are beholden to somebody else for their safety and lifestyle. And there was one woman, one, I think she got married at 56, and then she also married a lord, so she had this incredibly glamorous life as a single person…she had this flat I London, and traveled, and I was like hang on, I want to be like her. She dramatically influenced my own story of saying I want to be so successful I can be financially independent, so there’s this almost fierceness I think, and I’m going to get backlash for this because as women we don’t like the bad words, we only like the nice, kind, lovely words. But there’s this fierceness around Gen X women of, ‘I have to take care of myself and my family.’ Not that everybody doesn’t have that but there’s a lot more color there.”

And maybe this is true for women who were children of divorce. But I’m Gen X and my parents stayed married, my mother didn’t go back to work. For years my only real ambition to be a wife and mother. I know, right? A few things changed over the years.

But Joanna says the Gen X women she knows share her mindset of ‘I’ll get this done my way.’ And it’s different to the way the young women she works with think. She says they have a much more collaborative attitude both at work, and at home…

“Like I listen to both the men and women who worked with me and there was equally this concept of the young woman taking care of the family as there was for young men. And it was unheard of in our world to have a stay at-home-dad and this concept of co-parenting really rose around it. So there’s the decisions around the concept of having children. And I am fairly dramatic with this. This is part of why I chose to be a super-auntie to my sisters’ kids but not have my own because I wanted to have that freedom. But then I also sit here and talk to you and I physically cringed because that whole voice of ‘isn’t that selfish, you terrible - you are now not feminine because you chose not to have children’ is absolutely speaking in my head. And that choice really for, I think, my generation, the Gen Xers, and before, wasn’t there – and what I hope for this generation is that it is.”

And if you too have had that feeling of being less-than because you’re not a mother, you might want to listen to a show I did on this in 2014 – it’s number 48. It’s called Professional Women, No Kids.

The approach to motherhood can still divide professional women.

Some of you may remember Rachael Ellison. I spoke to her two years ago for a show I did called The Motherhood Factor – it focused on how women are treated differently at work once they have children.

Rachael wrote a great piece for the Huffington Post recently on generational differences between women. And it reminded me of something she told me when I spoke to her for that show. She was coaching this woman who worked for a big company in New York. She was a mother in her mid-thirties, and she turned to an older female colleague for advice, a senior vice president at the company…

“She knew she wanted to have three kids and she saw this woman above her had had three kids. So she said how do you do it, you know, that dreaded question, how do you do it? And she said it’s really easy, you just get a daytime nanny, an evening nanny, a cook, and a housekeeper. Those are the four things you need. And you’ll be set. And for her, forget the financial implications of that, that’s not what she’d envisioned for working parenthood, that’s not what she wanted.”

But Gen Xer Anne Loehr -  you heard her on the last show - she says that baby boomer who had all that help at home, there’s a reason for that. She and the women older than her entered the workforce in a different era…

“Now think of it from the woman’s perspective, my mother’s perspective and all the women of that generation who we have to thank…they thought and were told you have to be like a man – you dressed like a man, wore the boxy suits, they were more assertive, they hadn’t understood they had their own value as women leaders… they didn’t understand how to use that yet, so for a woman of that generation, yeah, because that’s what the men did – the men made sure everything was taken care of at home and then they did whatever they had to do to be successful. So the women followed suit.”

Though most of them couldn’t afford a staff. Rachael Ellison says the problem is when you’re working for a big company where none of the higher-ups talk openly about how they manage their lives, it’s no wonder some women feel their only option is to imitate what’s gone before.

She was talking to a client who had a 10-month old baby. This woman had a big job, and she was going in early, leaving late. Hardly saw her kid. She was having a hard time…she seemed on the verge of saying something has to change…

“Later on in the conversation just a few minutes later she had almost, you could see her steeling herself, galvanizing herself, arming herself with the knowledge that she could do it, giving herself an inner pep talk. And she said, you know what I should do, I should do it the way, so-and-so, my supervisor, does it. She has two kids and she’s done these 10 major projects that I admire, and I should show my staff that the same thing is possible. They too can have a kid and navigate this field. Which seemed so hard for me to digest, it just seemed like she was really struggling, but because there wasn’t really transparency and she felt she had to follow the model of the generation prior.”

She then found out later that female SVP, she had a stay-at-home husband – that’s one big reason why she could pull off all those projects.

Joanna Bloor says in her world, in Silicon Valley, young women mostly DON’T want to emulate their elders when it comes to parenthood. She says they don’t want to make the choices her contemporaries have made. With her friends and largely with mine, it looks like this:

“There was the step out of work and be a stay-at-home mom, which I absolutely have a lot of girlfriends who are that, and the choices that they made, and now they’re all like, oh, crap, I have to do that whole, ‘how do you get back into the workplace?’ And then another group, it’s a small group, who said I’m absolutely going to stay in the workplace – the kind of have no life, which I think is what Gen Y is reacting to. And/or have actually found that unicorn of a partner, where the dads are stay-at-home dads, I have a lot of friends who have stay at home dads, and I think it’s fantastic that that actually started with our generation. Or there are the ones like me who say, you know what, this is my path, and I’m absolutely going to be the substitute mom for a lot of people, but having my own children isn’t part of my journey.”

Joanna has mentored a lot of women. She still does. And she thinks a lot about what younger women expect from older ones, and what older ones can actually deliver.

“And this is the piece that I am still thinking about and I haven’t completely codified, but as a woman there is this expectation constantly that you are supposed to lift up the generation behind you, the women behind you, so as a Gen X woman you’re running around doing all your stuff and trying to balance life and family and work and all these sorts of things, and a) there’s not enough of you to go around, and we all hear the Madeleine Albright thing of there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help women. But there’s a supply and demand issue in play. There’s only so much helping we can do. Plus we are all human beings and every so often we have a bad day, so we might be kind of a jerk. This is the thing I’m still curious about, is, from woman to woman, do you measure when a woman is not nice to you more harshly than a man not being nice to you? Does that color it? And I believe it does. I think about when I’ve gotten bad feedback, when a guy says, you messed up this project or you did something bad, or he’s just a jerk, I go ‘oh, he’s just a jerk,’ but when a woman does it to you you go, oh she’s not nice. And that whole thing of we’re supposed to be the mother, nurturer thing as well as these power professional business things… you almost have to be schizophrenic to deal with the whole thing.”

Yup. You heard Barnard president Debora Spar talk about this on a past show. The idea that we expect women to be nurturing so we’re more disappointed when they don’t conform to type.

“I do hear from the young women I work with this whole, well, women don’t help me move up, and I’m like, guys, there’s a supply and demand issue, we don’t have enough hours in the day to help you all – trust me.”

She says all the Gen X women she knows are trying to help the next generation.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. As usual you can comment on this episode at The Broad Experience.com, or on the show’s Facebook page – or you can email me via the contact tab on the website. I’d love to hear whether any of this resonates with your experiences.

Thanks to all those of you who’ve taken a few minutes to review the show on iTunes and to everyone who’s supported the show with a donation – I really appreciate it.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. See you next time.